I probably should have mentioned, when I mentioned my photos of the Upper Peninsula in the 1970s a few posts ago, that I have a whole set devoted to portraits of people in the violin business, and also some other violin photos, in my Flickr photostream: http://flickr.com/photos/mdarnton
I’ve been trying to add to the violin people shots on a regular basis recently, so this set will be growing. All of the various sets can be accessed on the right of my first Flickr page.
I have been writing a violin making book for a few years. Progress is slow, but I’m in no hurry. At this point I have a few easy chapters, not yet illustrated (the pictures will be half of the project, I’m sure). You can see what’s already completed to that point here: http://violinmag.com
Before I was involved with violins, I was a photographer. My last full-time photo job was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on a very small newspaper in a very underpopulated area. It was a great job where I got to wander around in a four-county area, asking people I saw doing interesting things to let me take their picture for the paper. My editor happened to hate both sports and check-passing photos, so I didn’t have to deal with that kind of stuff. He wanted general-interest pictures of normal people, and I was delighted to do that.
Anyway, recently I’ve been going through my old negatives, looking to see what I might have missed the first time around, and am finding all sorts of interesting pictures from that era. I decided to digitalize some of them, and put them up on flickr in their own set. These aren’t necessarily newspaper photos—mostly they’re pix of friends and family from that period, doing their daily things. That’s me in the garden at the top of this post, for instance (Annie shot that one).
In my quest for the perfect jeweler’s saw blade for sawing out f-holes, I once landed the world’s last supply of these antique blades, defunct blades from a closed hardware store, bought at a now-closed tool store in downtown Chicago. The brand is Gilbert, and I tracked them down to around 1890 or so. They’re perfect for the job, sawing a wide kerf with lots of turning room, quickly, but not making a mess.
Notice that they appear to be made by a machine-driven chisel upsetting the edge of a strip of steel that’s then hardened after the teeth are cut. From the contour on the top of the teeth, I decided they probably started out as wire which was rolled flat. The photo is quite magnified: the height of the blade, from the bottom to the tops of the teeth is a little less than 1.5mm, and there are around 20 teeth per inch.
I have wire. I have chisels! Just for fun, after seeing a video on making rasps (a similar process to the way these blades were made), I decided I’d try making a blade the way they might have done it 300 years ago, by hand. I took a piece of soft iron wire, 1mm thick, and pounded it flat, for a start, then I started chopping.
OK, so I’m not ready for prime time. It’s harder than it looks. Before I could finish a whole blade, I cut all the way through, accidentally. I posted this photo on a forum where a member of the rasp company was posting, and he noted that it takes several years to train someone to cut a rasp to their standards, and I believe him.
Before “sharpening” on the left, after on the right:
There is a simple shop method for sharpening files that’s mentioned in more or less detail all over the web. It’s done by dipping the files in acid for an hour or more, which supposedly etches away the metal, sharpening the edge. However, as the process moves on, heat is generated, and that heat concentrates at the thinnest places in the metal—the sharp edges—and speeds up the process there. The result is as on the right in this microphoto: a file which feels much sharper because the surface has become greatly roughened. But look at what’s happened to the cutting edges: they’ve become blurred and dulled! The fresh, grainy roughness made that file feel like it was really going to hog wood, but in reality it mostly made a lot of grinding sounds, producing very fine dust, and hardly cutting at all.
There’s one shop, Boggs Tool and File Sharpening Company, that really does the job right, though. I sent them a batch of files many years ago, and they came back sharper than new, as Mr. Boggs had promised me. The improvement was genuinely amazing. I suspect he uses a similar process, but adds a step to concentrate the etching where it will make the edges sharper rather than duller. I may have figured out what that step might be, but I think that the next time I want an exotic $20 file sharpened, I’ll just let the expert do it right, rather than destroy it all on my own.
Another Variation on the Bass Bar
This funky thing showed up in my shop last week with a visitor. The violin is Chinese, about ten years old. The owner said it doesn’t sound horrible.
A Dominant Violin D String Under the Microscope
This is a Dominant brand aluminum-wound violin D string. The outside cover is two flat strips wound next to each other (they’re coming off the back, top, and you can see the pair grouped together still on the string). The horizontal scratches, running the length of the string, are from the final grinding and polishing of the string surface.
Inside the top winding is another similar winding, wound in the opposite direction. They’re coming off the left, and don’t have the same type of scratches on them. This winding comes out the end of the string and around the ball on the lower end of the string. I always thought it was the core, but you can see here that it’s not.
The real core is a bundle of synthetic fibers, tightly wrapped within the two outer metal wraps. On a pure steel string the core would be a single strand of steel, stiff and not compressible, or in some cases a twisted wire rope or untwisted bundle.
The more-flexible synthetic core is what gives the Dominant string it’s gut-like, flexible behavior. Think of a Chinese finger puzzle: as it’s stretched, it gets smaller. If a solid rod of steel were in the puzzle, instead of fingers, it would not stretch as flexibly as if the core was something soft, like a rubber rod. The bundle of fibers in the string works similarly, as a soft, compressible core, permitting the string to stretch more than a solid steel core would, resulting in behavior more simlar to gut than steel.
Wood Under the ‘Scope
A couple of weeks ago I discovered that it was easy to shoot photos through my microscope by just jamming my cell phone camera up against the eyepiece, so I started looking for interesting things to shoot. Some of the varnish ground samples on bridges, shown in an earlier post, look pretty cool under the ‘scope.
In this shot, the big vertical comb towards the left is one ray (the vertical spotting) on a violin bridge, which in the tree is a radial bundle of cells running horizontally out from the middle of the tree. The horizontal line on the bottom is a grain line (remember, a bridge is turned 90 degrees from the way a tree grows). The two smaller rays on the right are deeper in the wood, and the sealer I’m testing on this sample let me see right down into the wood for a short distance to see them. There is horizontal wood structure not visible here because of the lighting—the lengthwise fibers in the tree, since this photo is turned 90 degrees. You can just barely see them, as fibers running parallel to the grain line, on the far left.
For comparison, here’s the same view, but instead of being lit from the right side, the light is coming from the bottom. Now you can see the other set of fibers illuminated, and the rays beneath, on the right, are obscured by them:
Over at the Maestronet forum I posted this photo of the collection of gouges I use, and I’m going to repost here what I wrote there.
It’s easy to want to buy everything, but then you have to keep it all sharp. Here’s the list:
From the left: 30mm #7 for roughing, inside and out. The total length is 355mm 25mm #3 for finishing, inside and out. 19mm #7 for the edge around the c-bouts. Sometimes I use one of the scroll gouges. 21mm flat: a HSS knife blank with fingernail sharpening for where I need something almost flat 12mm #5 for as much of the head as I can manage 10mm #6 for when the previous is too flat 8mm #7 likewise 5mm #8? likewise 6mm incannel #9 or so, for hogging out inside the pegbox
If you look at Cremonese scrolls you’ll see that they only used a couple of gouges to do the whole job, so that’s what I do too. They are all sharpened to fingernail profile. On the knife blank that lets me use it bevel up for flat paring (sides of pegbox) and flipped it acts as a very flat gouge (for part of the first turn above the pegbox, and the transition between the two).
The last one is sold as a violin tool. As with many violin tools, it doesn’t work very well (the outside isn’t really round and the walls are too thick to bore easily} and I probably should buy a 6mm #9 and sharpen it in-cannel.
In the last year my sample set has grown to about 40 tests. I don’t feel like I’ve solved anything, but from the samples, and my observations of old instruments, both in my hand and through the microscope, have given me a full set of criteria that a nice varnish ground needs to meet. At the top of the list are two things: sparkling wood fibers when lit from any direction, and maximum transparency—the ability for the microscope to see down through layers of wood cells into lower layers, which depends on very transparent wood structure. On older Cremonese violins that is much more the case than on anything new that I’ve seen.
I’ve often used home-brewed pigments for varnish colors. When they’re finished, they are clumped, and sometimes gritty, in large pieces. To put them into varnish, one first needs to grind them to a fine powder.
When I worked at Bein and Fushi there wasn’t a lot of interest in raw pigments in the art world, so we had to look around to find dry pigments and the tools for grinding them. The hardest thing to get was a muller. Mullers look like upside-down mushrooms with flat tops, and are used against a piece of ground glass to break up pigment clumps and disperse them into varnish (or oil, if you’re making oil colors). The real grinding is done with a mortar and pestle: a muller isn’t a grinding tool as much as a mixing one, to make sure that every particle of pigment gets wetted with solvent or oil. [factoid: glass mullers show up on airport x-rays as completely opaque, and when the inspectors pull them out of your luggage, they still don’t have any idea what they’re looking at, of course… which reminds me of the time I tried to take a chinrest key into a federal courthouse.]
The first one was so hard to find, that for a while after that I went hog-wild buying them whenever I saw them. They turned out to be easier to find in England, so I came back from several trips with more of them (I was particularly pleased by the little ones with knob handles which came from a wonderful artist’s store near the British Museum in London, Cornellisen’s —if you ever go to London, put it on your list of places to visit. Unlike the US where the exterior may not be mirrored inside, the inside of Cornellisen’s is even better than the facade).
I have more than the ones in the photo. The lean one in the back is the first one. The steel “muller” is actually a meat pounder I bought in a cooking store. I haven’t ever tried it, but for $6, I couldn’t resist. The big one in the front was a going-away present from the guys in the B&F shop, and has my name, all their names, and some other things sand-blasted into it (you can read “CHICAGO MICHAEL” on the top of the handle).
Mortars and pestles, which are necessary if you’re making pigments from scratch, but not always if using commercially-made ones, are easier to find, of course, so I have a variety of sizes, and one that’s just for a single one of my home made pigments that tends to stain everything it touches.
In Renaissance art studios, grinding pigments was childs’ work, and one of the primary jobs of the very young apprentices. It doesn’t take any skill, just lots of patience.
A friend pulled these out of an old violin, and knowing I was interested in this kind of stuff, sent them to me. They’re violin pegs that probably predate 1800, and are maybe as old as 1750. (Notice that one peg doesn’t match—a later replacement, probably.) Eric Meyer, a great fittings maker on the west coast, tells me that they’re probably French, and, based on the number of them that he’s seen (that is: many), they were probably being commercially produced and distributed.
Thanks to another friend, here’s another set of pegs from around the same time (and again, one of the set doesn’t belong), but this time from England. This is a common English pattern, and all of the ones I’ve seen have been blocky like these, and light colored:
A similar type is still seen on some old English cellos, and here’s a set in situ on an English cello that was made around 1780:
A Nearly-Perfect f-hole
This f-hole is on a Brothers Amati cello dated around 1615. It’s one of the most beautiful I’ve seen and is perfect in execution. I’ve used it on a cello, and reduced it to fit on a violin, and a violino piccolo. In each case, when it’s the right size, it superimposes over the normal 4/4 and piccolo f-holes precisely, with no changes. That’s something would not have thought would happen; usually parts between violin family instruments don’t transfer well with a simper percentage change.
It’s All In the Details…
People who aren’t intimate with violins don’t have to consider all of the things a maker has to. There are all sorts of details on a violin that have to be done in some specific way. Not necessarily one way… I don’t mean that. I mean that when you have to do them, you find yourself wondering exactly which choice of the many you should make.
The cut off ends of the ribs at the corners are an example. There’s a definite thickness there; the c-bout rib feathers off to nothing on the inside of the joint (which is a miter, like on the corner of a picture frame), but the outer rib overlaps that and has about 1mm of thickness. You can cut the ends off to mimic the tip of the corner of the top and back (that’s the way that many people find natural, that’s often taught in violin making schools). Some makers in the past trimmed down the outer rib to form a sharp point; that’s logical, but fragile. Makers who taught themselves, and schools that put clamps on the ends of the rib when they glued the rib tips together, often bring both ribs up to the end full thickness, 2mm, with the joint in the center. If they were looking at good violins, they might have subsequently thinned both ribs so that the whole width of the end was 1mm. Some very obscure schools brought the inside, c-bout, rib out to the end, and feathered the outer one, so the (invisible) joint is at the outside of the end of the corner.
The corner in my drawing is the way that 17th century Cremonese makers did it: they cut the end of the (outer) exposed rib off square, so that it doesn’t match the end of the corners of the top and back. It doesn’t make a whole lot of visual sense, in context, but it’s the strongest way to make the tip, so that it doesn’t quickly wear. Guarneri del Gesu, with his sometimes very long corners backed up by blunt endings on the corner blocks that didn’t reach far enough out to give much support, often carried the outer rib out past the inner one a mm or two, by itself, and then finished it off square.